I spent some of my formative years around canals. Wretched affairs they mostly were too: stagnant, slow-moving, oil-slicked and rancid; anachronisms even then; relics of a way of life already in steady, irretrievable decline. Occasionally worked, invariably neglected, their banks and towpaths were places for chance meetings laden with promise, menace, sometimes both at once: for fights, spontaneous or pre-arranged; furtive sexual encounters (or stolen moments of romance – depending on your point of view); or for simply passing the time of day with a fellow traveller. The latter being nothing more than a euphemism for having a good old grumble: one of the many ways in which we made our own amusement back then.
By the time I’d reached school leaving age I’d probably seen enough miles of canal-side to last a rational person a lifetime. Fortunately I’d also discovered by then that there are canals and there are canals…
Walking a rural towpath at a quiet time puts me in mind of those science fiction films where time continuums (continua?) overlap; repeatedly cutting from blurred activity to slow motion sequence and back again. The water itself sets an unhurried background rhythm, quickened occasionally by the opening of a lock. It’s rare to find a boat moving at more than steady walking pace; livestock at the water’s edge will barely raise their heads to glance at passers-by. Similarly the heron; too transfixed on events below the surface to break its concentration.
It would be easy and, to be honest, not unpleasant to become lulled into a mild narcosis by the sedative effect of all this unhurried calm, were it not punctuated – usually unexpectedly – by the moments of abrupt activity: the flash of a kingfisher, the silvery turn of a shoal of fish, the sudden violence of a kestrel’s kill; the furtive dart of a too-quick-to-be-identified rodent. The event – already over – registers, and after a brief moment of surprise tranquility returns.